DAYTON, Ohio — Earlier this week, Cal Poly coach Joe Callero surmised that his Mustangs would finish with a winning record if they won the national championship.
“We need to win seven straight,” Callero quipped.
Well, only six more to go.
Senior forward Chris Eversley scored 19 points, and sophomore guard David Nwaba added 17 points to lift Cal Poly past the Texas Southern Tigers 81-69 in a first-round NCAA Tournament game between two No. 16 seeds Tuesday night at University of Dayton Arena.
It was the first-ever NCAA Tournament win for Cal Poly (14-19), which now advances to face No. 1 seed Wichita State (34-0) on Friday in St. Louis.
“We got a lot of text messages and calls congratulating us for making the NCAA Tournament,” Callero said. “It’s one thing to make it. It’s another thing to do something while you’re there.”
Advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament seemed unfathomable a week ago for the Mustangs, who finished seventh in the Big West Conference before winning three games in three days to capture the league tournament title.
On Tuesday, Cal Poly played confidently for 40 minutes on its biggest stage. The Mustangs also were a model for efficiency, shooting 56.9 percent with 15 assists, and committing just one turnover in the first half.
“We executed the game plan by moving the ball side to side and making their defense shift,” Eversley said. “It made our offense like a well-trained orchestra. Everybody’s playing different instruments, but together we sound great.”
Sophomore guard Reese Morgan hit two crucial second-half 3-pointers for the Mustangs and finished with nine points. “It’s great having Reese back on the court,” said Nwaba. “He’s battled injury all year. He knocked down some big shots.”
Sophomore center Brian Bennett added 10 points for Cal Poly, which led by 12 points at halftime and played well in all facets, sans defending Texas Southern senior forward Aaric Murray, the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
Murray had a monster game Tuesday for Texas Southern (19-15), scoring 38 points. He made 14 of 23 shots from the floor, including three of five 3-pointers, and he went 7-for-7 from the foul line. But, Murray said it was not as easy as it appeared.
“I think their defense was pretty good,” Murray said. “They didn’t let me catch the ball one-on-one. They just played some good, tough defense.”
Texas Southern’s 10th turnover resulted in senior guard Jamal Johnson’s layup that gave the Mustangs a 48-32 lead with 18 minutes left.
The Tigers switched things up on defense, forcing five quick Cal Poly turnovers and cut the deficit to nine. Cal Poly had 14 turnovers in the second half, uncharacteristic for them. “We’ve made a daily habit of taking care of the ball,” Callero said.
A three-point play by Texas Southern junior guard Jose Rodriguez made the score 59-51. Rodriguez finished with 14 points.
Early on, Cal Poly had difficulty containing the 6-foot-10 Murray, who began the game with three dunks, including a thunderous one-handed jam in transition. He scored 17 points in the first half.
However, the Mustangs hardly were intimidated.
Freshman guard Ridge Shipley buried a 3-pointer just ahead of the shot-clock buzzer to put Cal Poly ahead 25-19. Despite Texas Southern’s size advantage, the Mustangs managed to outscore them 20-16 in the paint in the first half.
Sophomore forward Joel Awich gave Cal Poly its largest lead of the half, 32-24, with a transition dunk. Later, Nwaba’s dunk from the baseline put the Mustangs in front 44-30.
“They took advantage of our mistakes defensively, they shared the ball well,” said Texas Southern coach Mike Davis. “I’m really proud of my basketball team. We had a good season.”
When asked if Wichita State should be concerned heading into Friday’s second round matchup, Eversley was careful not to hand the Shockers any added incentive.
“Wichita State is a great team,” he said. “They’ve been undefeated all year for a reason. We just have to worry about ourselves and play the way we’ve been playing.”
NOTES: Texas Southern made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003, fifth overall. … The Tigers are the third team head coach Mike Davis has led to
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